Laurent Pelly’s production of Offenbach’s La Belle Helene has already been seen in Paris (at the Chatelet Theatre) and in Santa Fe, it has also made it to CD and to DVD. Now the production has come to the London Coliseum under the auspices of English National Opera. The problem with much travelled productions is that a degree of coarseness can creep in with each revival. But Laurent Pelly is a fine director who, together with his regular associate director Agathe Melinand, oversees not only the production but the actual edition of the spoken text. For the original Chatelet production of La Belle Helene Agathe Melinand produced her own edition of the dialogue, as she did for her and Pelly’s subsequent collaborations on La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein (again Chatelet Theatre) and Le Roi Malgre Lui (Lyons Opera). So obviously Melinand and Pelly take careful note of the tone of the spoken word.
Inevitably, whilst listening to Kit Hesketh Harvey’s English translation at ENO last night, this lead to me wonder how good Melinand and Pelly’s English was and how much control they had over the intensely jokey tone of Harvey’s translation. Full of puns and modern references, it rather tipped the production a little too far in the direction of Gilbert and Sullivan, which is not what you want when trying to produce Offenbach in the UK.
But Pelly (and Harvey’s) problem with this operetta is that when originally produced it satirised the moeurs of the court of Napoleon III in terms of classical mythology. It was written for an audience who could be presumed to know classical mythology well. If you take away the Napoleon III satire and have to apply an extremely broad brush to the classical mythology then what you are left with is a romp.
Most of the critics complained that this incarnation of Pelly’s production was too end of the pier, to English romp. But it IS a romp and you can hardly expect ENO to acquire the sort of French chic style which was presumably in evidence at the original production (We did not see La Belle Helene in France but we did see La Grande Duchesse).
It does not help that Pelly seems to be applying three different treatments to the opera rather than one consistent attitude. The overture starts in the Spartan Royal Bedroom and all of Act1 remains there, with Helene and Menelaus in bed for much of the time. Costumes are an endearing mixture of Greek and nightwear. The bed makes an appearance in each act. For Act 2 we still have the bed, after all it is Helene’s boudoir. But we have a selection of ruins which are being conserved by modern archaeologists, cue a ballet for the archaeologists at the opening of the act. The chorus are modern day tourists, complete with tour guide. When Helene addresses her parents she looks at the conserved remains of a mosaic of Leda and the Swan. For the final act everything takes place at the modern Greek seaside and Paris appears from the flies, using the bed as a boat!
Pelly treats each number to its own routine and though there is an overall coherence of tone, there was a sense of a sequence of fascinating production numbers. The dancing sheep during Paris and Helene’s duet were notable, but I also liked the swimming ballet which opened Act 3.
As Helene, Dame Felicity Lott looked fabulous and had a secure feel for the requisite style and delivered her dialogue to the manner born. Unfortunately the role is slightly low for her so she sounded underpowered to the vast cave of the Coliseum. Still, she incarnated the most beautiful woman in the world with consummate ease. As Paris, Toby Spence proved to have a nice line in comedy, treating the role with due seriousness (as is appropriate) and never having to resort to sending himself up. He was generous with giving us views of his well developed, shirtless torso and at one point stripped down to his underpants, to no very good reason but I shan’t complain! His voice was noticeable more powerful than Lott’s but they made a handsome couple and did convince as a pair of lovers.
As Helene’s put upon husband Menelaus, Bonaventura Bottone impressed; it was funny to see him as a middle aged man (complete with his own naturally grey hair and bald patch) rather than a young lover. But he made Menelaus a sympathetic butt for the jokes. Steven Page impressed as Calchas, though he was lumbered with an awful hairy wig.
The 4 Kings similarly suffered so it was tricky to tell them apart. I feel that Pelly the director and Pelly the costume designer could have done more to characterise the 4 of them differently. As it was you felt that singers as talented as David Kempster (Agamemmnon), Leigh Melrose (Achilles) and John Graham-Hall (Ajax I) were a little wasted. Leah Martin Jones made a fine, laddish Orestes constantly with a pair of courtesans on his arms.
The orchestra was relatively small in size and, under Emmanuel Joel’s direction, delivered up a sparkling account of the score. All in all this was an enjoyable evening, and if we did not always appreciate Kit Hesketh Harvey’s jokes, the audience around us did.